Hypervigilance: What too much Situational Awareness does to your brain

Hypervigilance is a heightened state of awareness and sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli.

The rational behind 'Situational Awareness' is that being able to spot signs of troubles early goes a long way in keeping us out of harm and it is one of the main paradigms of the self defence industry.

While avoiding trouble is definitely the safest option, there is a number of serious issues with the way 'situational awareness' is used and taught without any regard to its side effects.

The corner of poor tactical choices

In January 2015, Joshua Gideon (NoSoftTarget) was sitting at a local restaurant when he noticed a guy in a corner.

The guy, who was having lunch with his family, was wearing camo pants, a concealed carry vest, and open-carried a revolver. He sat in a corner, overlooking the entire building and looked ready for any disruption in the social or political orders.

"He looked wired like the waitress had been giving him an I.V. drip of coffee since the restaurant opened", Joshua Gideon (No one puts tough guys in a corner)

As Gideon recounts, the 'prepper', despite his high level of awareness and apparent preparedness, had made a number of tactically-unsound choices:
  • he was sitting in a corner, far from the nearest exit
  • he was boxed between other tables
  • he was turning his back to several windows
  • his hypervigilance was noticeable and brought him a lot of extra attention
The camo-pants guy possibly did not understand the "why" of his tactics, as Gideon contends, which led him to specifically choose that table in the corner so he could see throughout the entire venue and felt safer (because no one could sneak up behind him!).

But what if, instead, his poor tactical choices were a direct consequence of his mindset?

The Curse of Hypervigilance

A lack of safety makes people anxious and tense, and the long term effects are debilitating. The same effects occur when we believe we're living in an unsafe situation even if we're not. The psychological term for this is hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.

Scanning constantly for threats leads to an unending, low-level anxiety which fuels a state of apprehension says Kevin LaBar a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

This anxiety, in turn, triggers the release of stress hormones -such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine- which fuels anxiety in an unending cycle, and, in the long term, induces hypervigilance (LaBar, 2014).

"Cortisol is great in small and infrequent doses, and helps you run away from tigers. But it destroys your brain and body if you marinate in it for extended periods of time" Bruce Schneier (Living in Code Yellow).

It's a vicious cycle that triggers a number of neurological, biological and psychological mechanisms which, in turn, deeply affect our perception and negatively influence our decision making capabilities.

The curse of hypervigilance

Attentional and memory biases

Stress hormones also induce attentional and memory biases toward threat-related material (LaBar, 2014).

In other words, high levels of awareness / constant awareness, can easily ramp up anxiety to a point where cognitive resources are hijacked and perception is altered.

Too much 'awareness' can actually have adverse consequences on our physical and mental capacities to detect and react properly to threats.

During a test emulating airport security screening procedures, officers subject to higher levels of anxiety missed a notable number of weapons (Cain, Dunsmoor, LaBar & Mitroff, 2010).

This means that visual search capacity (among others) significantly deteriorates with increased levels of anxiety.

Studies in neuroscience have also shown that “threat detection requires effortful allocation of attentional resources, which became depleted over time” (Parasuraman & Galster, 2013).

Attention is a finite resource, so you cannot be aware all the time and you cannot be aware of everything.

This is particularly important in regards to the daily data overload we are already subject to, which spreads our attention ever thinner.

Hypervigilance is exhausting not only because of the over-use our attentional resources, but because it also prevents deep resting sleep and it over-stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which stimulates the body's fight-or-flight response.

"It is exhausting! I always have a higher blood pressure when they measure my blood pressure. My back, neck, lower back hurts all the time." Mea (How does hypervigilance affect you)

The release of stress hormones in the blood stream (incl. the famous 'adrenaline dump') gives the energy-boost to run away or fight in order to escape a dangerous situations but it also results in a lot of energy burnt, it wears out very quickly, and it has short and long term debilitating effects such as:
  • loss of color vision and tunnel vision
  • short term memory loss
  • decreased fine motor skills
  • decreased communication skills
  • decreased coordination
  • feeling that time has either increased or slowed down
  • extreme emotional and physical fatigue
  • symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

Obviously, it's not sustainable to live in hyperdrive like this all the time.

The most unlikely threat

Scanning constantly for threats means we're actively looking for signs of danger or trouble. The problem with this is two-fold:

Our perception of what is a threat is incredibly biased by our knowledge, our preconceived ideas, and inaccurate information.

For example, there was right after 9/11 and more recently after 11/13 Paris attacks, a number of violent actions against Sikh people who were mistaken for Muslim Arabs because of the turban male Sikhs must wear (see here, here and here).

This kind of bias is perfectly well illustrated in the 1997 movie Men in Black.

The capable criminal is an expert at deception and concealment. He is a con artist.

How many times do we hear or read in the news: "Residents here describe the killer as a shy man who was a quiet and cordial neighbor", or "who would have known, he didn't look like a criminal", or "his behavior didn't match the commonly received idea of a rapist's behavior".

The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye", Gavin de Becker (The Gift of Fear, 1997).

Threat perception is a funny business.

We tend to over-react to sudden changes but under react to changes that occur slowly and over time; similarly, we over-react to immediate threats and under-react to long-term threats (Schneier, 2006).

Most Likely Causes of Death

In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker points out that "we tend to give our full attention to risks that are beyond our control (air crashes, nuclear-plant disasters) while ignoring those we feel in charge of (dying from smoking, poor diet, car accidents), even though the latter are far more likely to harm us".

"In very general terms: (1) The more available an event is, the more frequent or probable it will seem; (2) the more vivid a piece of information is, the more easily recalled and convincing it will be; and (3) the more salient something is, the more likely it will be to appear causal." Scott Plous (The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making)

The Hypervigilance Vicious Cycle

So it is not simply that the camo-pant guy did not understand the "why" of his tactics as Gideon contends, the problem is that his mindset negatively influenced his perception and decision processes.

Hypervigilance is a thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion.

His choice of table was not based on sound tactical considerations despite what he would probably tell you, but on a psychological glitch, an obsession.

As it's quite common in cases of hypervigilance, it is the need to control. From that position in the corner, overlooking the entire building, he could see what was going on. Who would come in, who would get out.

"[...] when I am out on the front porch I can see whats going on, whose approaching, whose leaving the street...", Floater (How does hypervigilance effect you)

In that state of apprehension, decisions are not rational.

Naturally, people are continually looking for ways to improve their competitiveness. When a threat is perceived, they make incremental improvements in efficiency to strengthen their position.

This is known as the Red Queen Effect, named for the advice Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen offers to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”.

The Red Queen Race

The theory was proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen in 1973, and essentially states that a species must constantly adapt and evolve simply to maintain its place in the food chain.

The problem though is that very often people's perception of threats is biased. Very often threats are not "clear and present". We have to imagine what a bad guy could potentially do.

We create a 'bad guy' persona -our imagination further stimulated by news outlets- and we start competing against him, trying to find counters to his most vicious attacks.

In fact, we've entered the pernicious Red Queen race with an imaginary 'baddy' and doing so we've conjured up the Curse of Hypervigilance.

From Condition Yellow to Hypervigilance

The starting point with 'Situational Awareness' is Cooper's color code.

Cooper’s color code epitomizes the focus on 'awareness' that has permeated the Self Defence industry for the past few decades.

Jeff Cooper (1920-2006) was an officer in the US Marines who served during World War II and the Korean War. In his book, Principles of Personal Defense, he set forth his concept of 'combat mindset'. Cooper broke down state of mind into four degrees of readiness which he gave colour names.

Copper's colour code - awareness
Cooper's Color Code

The problem with 'Cooper's colour code' is that it was designed by the military (which makes it very popular with Krav Maga practitioners) for combat situations where the threat level is so high that 'awareness' needs to be at 'paranoid' level.

More precisely, Cooper's code comes only in 4 colors whereas 'awareness' in a civilian world should come in a variety of shades adapted to a variety of situations.

In the competition against our imaginary bad guy, the unintended consequence of an overly simplified approach to potential threats is that, 'white' being ground-zero, very quickly we end up living constantly in 'yellow condition' (even at home).

"I've been living in condition yellow every since I was mugged back in 1997 [...] I don't think I've every felt truly safe since, and plot a means to defend myself every time I am alone in public. It's no way to live, exhausting and stressful [...]" Peter V Brett (What PTSD is?)

And this situation is further promoted by a number of recognized experts who emphatically support the idea that "condition yellow is a great place to live".

"If you are awake, then you’d better well be in condition Yellow". The Guardian Shepherd

See, for example, these articles by Massad Ayoob: Live in Condition Yellow – Always Be Aware of Your Surroundings (2014) and 7 Must-Know Tips & Tactics for Living in Condition Yellow (2015). (See by contrast our article: How to improve your Situational Awareness with natural threat detection mechanisms).

So when is it acceptable to be in condition White? When you are in your home with the doors locked, the alarm system on and your dog at your feet. Now you can turn your mind off because you have plenty of early warning systems in place. Women's Self Defence Institute.

Since there is no 'dark yellow', only 'yellow' then 'orange', once you've permanently switched to 'yellow condition', you'll feel you'll have to move to 'orange condition' -which is already quite a high level of alertness- whenever you step out of your house.

Great! You got yourself into an arms race against...yourself.

Retzev - Battery Attack and forward pressure

No, 'Yellow Condition' is not a great place to live

As self defence instructors, we need to be careful what we push on our students. Do you know the signs symptoms of anxiety and mild hypervigilance? Could you spot among your students who is suffering from anxiety? Because to much focus on 'situational awareness' and 'colour code' could make things worse for them.

Using a colour-code, to tell us what state of awareness we should be in, switches our thought process to a strong analytical mode. So, instead of being simply aware, we're going to be constantly wondering whether we should be in 'white' or 'yellow' or 'orange' condition.

Scanning constantly for threats leads to an unending low-level of anxiety which triggers the release of stress hormones which, in turn, fuel anxiety.

Bruce Schneier Quote

Do civilians really need 'Cooper's code', Jason Bourne type of situational awareness, and Hypervigilance in a normal civilian context as many “experts” contend?

Mostly not.

“Situational awareness, as it is typically taught in the defensive world, is a fallacy. It simply doesn’t work the way that it has been taught for years”.
Paul Carlson (Safety Solutions Academy)

Good self-defence training will develop 'situational awareness' anyway. Any addition to that will create more paranoia than 'awareness'.

The question now is: how do we keep the positive side of 'awareness' without giving into paranoia / hypervigilance?

We use innate capabilities of our brain: How to improve your Situational Awareness.

What drills do you use to enhance awareness?


  1. I have to 100% disagree with this, here's why; The question is this, do we as humans belong in a constant state of being in "yellow"? Yes we do, our ancestors had to be to survive. therefore the ones that were not would not be able to pass their genes on. So early humans even up until recently and people living in dangerous conditions have survived by being in a constant state of readiness and scanning. So it's a natural condition to be in for humans as well as any animal in the wild. Watch your pet, do you think they aren't always ready and scanning their environment? Is your pet crazy? No but if they were abused they show symptoms of it. Having a condition like PTSD causes people to act differently, they show symptoms of that condition. Training is the key factor, knowing how to channel your hyper awareness and making it an everyday part of your existence does no harm to you, in fact it can help you enjoy life. Look at the good things as well as the potentially dangerous instead of having your face in a cell phone. Good things, children playing, a wonderful flower garden, the trees, architecture, there are wonderful beautiful things all around us. It goes both ways, the beauty of our world as well as the ugly, be aware of both. I see so many bad drivers on the road because they are not in a state of awareness. As Jeff Cooper says being afraid is not being aware. Fear is the cause of these issues being mentioned here NOT being in condition yellow. Learning to be in a relaxed state of mind yet aware and ready for action takes some training and is the natural state for humans. Being in fear is what creates poor behavior and a poor mental state, that is what the author is confusing condition yellow with.

  2. Hi Big Daddy!

    Thanks for your interesting input on the question.

    The main point of my article was "what TOO MUCH awareness" does. I agree with you about "paying attention" but I disagree with lots of people in our industry who put so much focus on awareness that it is borderline paranoia because -as I tried to show in this article- it triggers a number of psychological and biological processes which in the longer term could lead to hypervigilance/paranoia/PTSD.

    Stress and anxiety alter how your hippocampus functions, and causes an excess of cortisol in your body. Now cortisol is great in small and infrequent doses, and helps you run away from tigers. But it destroys your brain and body if you marinate in it for extended periods of time.

    Note that if awareness was totally as you say (highly important for the survival of our ancestors and passed through the genes), after a couple of millions of years of evolution we would not have to be in a state of awareness, it would simply be here all the time. But it is not the case; as you say: "I see so many bad drivers on the road because they are not in a state of awareness."

    So how come awareness can be switched on/off if our ancestors -until very recently- had to live in "a constant state of being in yellow"? It should be hardwired very much like other "threat detection mechanisms" (see my other article: http://bit.ly/1L5yxr5).

    Well, the likely reason is -and that's what I tried to convey in my article- the biological and psychological impact constant awareness has on our body and mind (which should have been negated via evolution as "good" genes were passed from generation to generation).

    Fear does not necessarily triggers PTSD; the associated anxiety often does.

    For example, I know people who have been shot at by snipers (big fear - short duration). They don't have PTSD. I also know people who have never directly been shot at by snipers who have PTSD because they had to live for a long time with that constant risk (low fear =anxiety, long duration).

    Similarly, mild but constant bullying can trigger mild symptoms of PTSD because of the associated anxiety over long period of time it creates.

    So, although big fear can of course trigger PTSD, low level -but constant- anxiety can trigger it as well.

    We know from a number of studies referenced in my article that "Too much 'awareness' can actually have adverse consequences on our physical and mental capacities to detect and react properly to threats."

    In one of the example cited, security officers doing the screening at the airport didn't particularly fear anything. So it was not fear that distracted them but too much awareness that depleted their attention.

    Some other examples: Put someone who never left the countryside in an hectic city, they'll struggle; vice versa, put a city dweller in the jungle and they'll struggle. In both cases, they go in hyper-drive - too many things to pay attention to.

    What this means is that we learn as we grow up, we learn where to focus/apply our awareness. It is a selective process. Because, as the studies quoted in the article indicate: "attention is a finite resource".

  3. This is an excellent and well written article! I totally agree with your conclusions! Thanks for the mention!